Ever since my book, Dancing With Dinosaurs (1993), where I wrote about the “Crack in history” I’ve been warning people that we are living in a time of radical change. But I was wrong. We’re really living in a time of unthinkable change. Who would have ever imagined 9/11 could happen; or who in their wildest dreams could conjure up the 2008 financial debacle.  It’s one thing to experience incremental or exponential change.  It’s a totally different issue to live in a world of radical discontinuity where anything goes.

That’s why I’ve used the metaphors of National Park and the Jungle to describe what’s happening today. The two metaphors describe the radical discontinuity of the two environments- one that is a controlled, safe, slowly changing world and the other an out of control, unsafe, changing every minute type of world.

The law of the jungle is survival. But this doesn’t necessarily mean hunkering down in the bunker and guarding every position. In the short term, yes, it means just that surviving for another day. But in the long term it means much more. It means adapting ahead of the context changing.

In our recent book, Doing Ministry in Hard Times, we talked about living in a wildcard world.  A wildcard is something out of the blue that few if any people have made contingencies for- like 9/11 or 2008. The world of the National Park was fairly predictable with very few wildcards. It was a world of probabilities.  The Jungle is totally unpredictable and has more wildcards than probabilities. That means we have entered a world totally without rules. Acting on previous world views, we responded to 9/11 by declaring war on the Al Qaeda only to make things far worse. And no one has a clue whether the billions of dollars being spent on bailouts will actually help or hinder our recovery.

So, what does this have to say to church leaders who want to thrive in a totally unpredictable world?

Actions for the Unthinkable Age

First, we must quit denying these changes are talking place and that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect some miracle will happen to change the outcome.  We must let the status quo go and learn to live in a new world.

Second, we must begin to look at life differently.  Although this world is totally unpredictable there are some things we can count on.

  • Constant change has replaced any status quo.  We can only surmise that this will be the norm for some time now. So we will do well to do away with long range planning, annual budgets and meetings, and develop a fluid, easy to change organization.  Strategic mapping will be the way to go. Maps change every time a better instrument for measuring topography is developed.
  • Context will replace problems as the focal point for change. National Parks have problems that can be fixed.  Survival in the Jungle depends on knowing where you are at any given moment – context.  Understanding your surroundings and adapting to them will be more important than your skill set.  So when was the last time you walked your neighborhood and talked with your neighbors? Or when was the last time you read a book that helped you understand what is actually going on in the lives of your target audience? Do you know who your target audience is?
  • Fast is better than any form of procedure (Presbyterians, hold on to your hats). Ready, fire, aim is no pun. It is for real.
  • The more options we leave ourselves the better off we will be. This is one of the main reasons I prefer multi sites over church plants or relocation.  A multi site leaves open all of the options – stay where you are, remain a church in multiple locations, or in time totally relocate.
  • We need to develop unthinkable models rather than base our ministry on the past.  A good example of this are the church using Twitter doing worship, or the second life world of LifeChurchTV.

Third, we must become resilient rather than resistant or reactive. Resilience is how much disturbance a person or organization can withstand before it breaks down to the point of no return. Becoming resilient means at least the following:

  • Only fast changing adaptive systems and leaders will survive in the jungle. Those leaders who learn to lead in this new world will be those who learn to adapt faster than the environment.  They will learn how to thrive in the midst of chaos. They will learn to evolve in the fact of the unthinkable. A good question for a church or denomination is how far can we decline and still remain a viable unit? The key here is to adapt before reaching that point.
  • Leaders must have a will to innovate, improve, and anticipate.  Leaders must be constantly re-conceptualizing the issues so that nothing ever is seen as “the way we’ve always done it.” A good example would be the Vineyard Church. It’s not doing so well these days because it congregations are growing older and are having trouble reaching the “twenty-somethings,” the very age group that spawned the Vineyard Church. The Vineyard clings to its lilting praise music which sounds like Lawrence Welk to today’s young adults.

Fourth, leaders must be willing to give power and ministry away and trust people to act on behalf of the common good.  It’s easy to be a lone ranger in the National Park; it’s deadly to try it in the Jungle.  That’s why decentralized, peer production is the way to go in an unpredictable world. The top-down, command and control method of getting things done leads only to a company like GM who is lead by people totally out touch with today’s car buyers. The same is true with most church leaders only there’s no one going to bail us out.

The problem with this fourth point is it is based on a leadership and organization of trust. Most established churches are based on a non-trusting view of leadership and organization. So many checks and balances have been put into play. So, here’s the final kicker – the more checks and balances a system has in place the quicker it will go down in flames in the jungle.  This is why we are been promoting the John Carver understanding of policy governance – least is best.  Set out in writing what the CEO can’t do and stay out of the way other than making sure the CEO doesn’t do any of the things stated in the covenant.

What Ifs

If we are going to do well in this unthinkable age it is now obvious to many of us that we are going to have to think differently. So let me start us off by allowing my attempt to see the world differently to ask a different set of questions.  I encourage you to email me (Easum@aol.com )with your “What ifs.”

  • What if we did away with any form of a Board and followed the biblical practice of rolling dice or allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through the spiritual leaders?
  • What if we decided that any policy that in any way gets in the way of the original basic mission of the organization would be abolished?
  • What if the Vineyard Church would develop music for generation Y the same way it did for the Jesus people of the 60s?
  • What if the Presbyterian Church put people before procedure and policy?
  • What if the United Methodist Church asked the same question Coke and Asbury asked when they stood on the East Coast and pondered how to get to the West Coast even if it meant doing away with the Itinerant system?
  • What if there weren’t any moderate or fundamentalist Southern Baptist?
  • What if the names of most Lutherans weren’t so strange sounding?
  • What if we did away with annual budgets and just spent the money as the need arose?
  • What if……… you fill in the blank and email me.